From social worker to fashion entrepreneur via a passion for football, GLD’s co-founder shares his career journey up to his latest venture - Italian plimsoll brand Superga
When Simon Bamber was just 17, he left his home town of Blackpool and moved to London to work as a social worker. He had developed an obsession with the capital after his father took him to see Blackpool play Tottenham Hotspur in 1977. Having fallen in love with the ‘Lilywhites’, thanks to the ball skills of star player Glenn Hoddle (the game ended 2-0 to Tottenham) and their “dazzling” white shirts, he concocted a web of white lies to ensure he could regularly watch the team play.
What followed was a 6am wake-up on a Saturday morning when he would tell his parents he was going to see a friend in the next village for trumpet practice. Instead, aged just 11, he would take a train to London and head to White Hart Lane where he began selling raffle tickets in return for free entry - an early sign of his entrepreneurial skills. Come final whistle he had to “leg it up the high road” to make the last train back to Blackpool. His parents never caught him but his trumpet skills never made it to the standard they might have expected.
Passion for the game
After two years as a social worker, a friend persuaded Bamber to join him in business. “We were flogging leather jackets we’d bought in Brick Lane to retailers. It was great in winter but devoid of demand in the summer so we came up with the idea of selling T-shirts as well,” he says.
Bamber’s T-shirt idea was to combine his passion for “footie” with his latest business venture. Aged around 19, he drove first to Anfield (home of Liverpool FC) and then to Old Trafford (home of Manchester United). He met both teams’ commercial directors with an idea to print some non-replica but official T-shirts. This was pre-Premier League, before football exploded into big business and, incredibly in retrospect, Bamber dictated a contract to their PAs there and then (just write down what you want, they told him) and handed over cheques for £500 each.
With contracts in hand he headed to a screen-printers and used the last of the cash from the business to print up 2,000 T-shirts to mark the 1990 Charity Shield game between Manchester United and Liverpool. He set up a stall in the path of the oncoming fans on Wembley Way. “In two hours we had sold out,” he says.
Within three years, he had bought the screen-printing business, hired 80 people and “got into US sports”, signing the rights to make fanwear featuring baseball team New York Yankees, American football team LA Raiders and basketball team Chicago Bulls during the licence-to-print money Michael Jordan era.
Twist of fate
Shortly afterwards a strange twist in fate brought a major opportunity. “We got a call from a US business. We’d mistakenly copied one of their designs. They demanded to see us,” Bamber explains. “However, they were so impressed with our operation that they asked if they could buy the company.”
That company was the publicly listed US firm Nutmeg. Six months later, Nutmeg was sold to VF Corporation, owner of brands like The North Face and Wrangler, and still one of the largest publicly traded clothing businesses in the world today.
“While you can have entrepreneurial spirit, it will never teach you how a large multinational works. At VF, I was exposed to the art of strategic planning, management reports and writing long memos - not something I ever did on the stall outside Wembley Stadium,” he says.
But after three years, the entrepreneur spirit in him grew restless and he quit to take a month off (coinciding conveniently with Euro 96 - “I watched every game I could”) before he got a call from Marco Boglione, a former fanwear competitor, who asked him to partner a rescue deal for Italian sports brand Kappa, which had filed for bankruptcy. “It ticked my boxes. It had heritage. We knew fanwear. I wanted to see if we could grow a sports brand. We adopted a licensing and franchise model.”
Bamber led sales and, as his British Airways card turned gold (he clocked up between 700,000 and 800,000 air miles a year), so did the Kappa brand. The business floated in 1999 with revenues of £300m. In 2006, Kappa bought the then ailing Italian plimsoll brand Superga as a turnaround project.
That acquisition came just as Bamber had stepped down from his Kappa role to branch out on his own after meeting his wife, Elizabeth Bamber, then the fashion director of US department store chain Macy’s. “My life was different then. I couldn’t do the trips I used to,” he says. So he headed back to London with the idea of setting up a small-scale version of VF Corporation. “I thought there was an opportunity to get different brands in different sweet spots of the market in the leisure, casual and sports arena. It would be a micro VF-style operation with shared warehousing, finance, logistics and supply chain management but would preserve the DNA of the brands.” In 2006, he joined up with Ewan Scott, Kappa’s UK partner, to set up licensing and distribution firm GLD.
The business now has the rights for Superga in the UK and Republic of Ireland. It also owns streetwear brand Addict outright, has the licence for Duck And Cover footwear and the rights to make football-linked footwear via a business called Basiz. Earlier this year, Bamber scored a great marketing coup by signing the fashion sales endorsement machine that is Alexa Chung to front a campaign to celebrate Superga’s centenary. It went live this week.
Superga was founded after Walter Martiny, an Italian tyre manufacturer, turned his hand to vulcanised footwear. “It’s the plimsoll brand of choice in Italy, like Converse is elsewhere. It’s worn by Italians of any age from kids to those in their 70s,” says Bamber.
The brand has about 80 UK and RoI stockists including Soletrader and Schuh, and is best known for its classic canvas 2750 style, which retails for around £40. Bamber plans to open a Superga store in central London later this year to give consumers a complete “brand flavour”.
“We’re like Baskins Robbins [the ice cream company] in that we have 83 flavours of the 2750 but behind that we have other products as well. We have leather product. We have wellies and boots and neat outlandish uppers,” he adds, pointing out that Superga isn’t a repeat of the one-season leather jacket business he started out with.
Bamber is also expanding Addict, which he believes could fill the gap left by the administration and subsequent sale of Fenchurch to JD Sports Fashion earlier this month. Addict has a wide product range from outerwear to tees, polos and footwear led by trends. It has between 300 and 400 accounts worldwide.
Aside from his micro-VF, Bamber also runs a “friends and family”-type private equity firm. It made its first investment in 2008, taking a minority stake in The Licensing Company, an agency with clients such as Coca-Cola. It also has an interest in a joint venture with US firm Iconix, which has the rights to 18 brands including Rocawear, Ed Hardy and Material Girl - Madonna’s clothing line.
“We favour consumer product businesses that are IP heavy. What we bring is industry knowledge and international contacts. We don’t want to be the operator,” says Bamber. “We are going to see a lot of consolidation at the supply end,” he adds, mindful of the opportunities that offers entrepreneurs like himself.
The contacts he has means there isn’t much in the branded world that doesn’t come across his desk in times of trouble and Bamber’s name is likely to crop up more as the market battles cotton price rises, VAT rises and unemployment.
Although he claims that being downgraded to a silver card by British Airways prompted a champagne celebration with his wife, it is certain his work ethic and eye for untapped potential in the branded market isn’t sated. Superga could be the tip of the iceberg.
2007 Founds Albion Equity Partners
2006 Co-founds GLD, operator of several brands in UK and RoI
1999 Chief executive, Basic Properties, worldwide owner of Kappa trademarks
1996 Chief executive, Basic Properties America, owner-operator of Kappa in North America
1992 Vice-president of knitwear division Europe, VF Corporation
1991 Sells Kick Sports to Nutmeg
1987 Co-founds Kick Sports